The Struggle for an Identity

Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad will compel you to earnestly examine your constructed identity.

Who am I? What do I say upon being asked to describe my identity? Am I to be defined on the basis of nouns like gender, class, domicile, nationality, ethnicity or race? Perhaps my identity is my profession or my wealth or maybe the shallowness or depth of my intellectual abilities. Do I have a choice or is this identity manufactured for me? Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad (2015) traces the a day in the life of a young man Ananda, studying English Literature in late 20th century London, much like Chaudhuri himself did, and is plagued with these existential questions.

Ananda has obvious parallels with Chaudhuri’s life, which is why Ananda’s character and his anxieties about being a presumably privileged brown Bengali boy in London have such a ring of authenticity. Born to a generation of parents who inherited the humanist ideals of Tagore, raised in Bombay, Ananda is on a voyage to pursue his literary interests in England. However, like scores of students from third world countries in United Kingdom even today, Ananda finds himself in a state of disorientation as he feels himself stripped of his identity.

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Privilege
This state is first triggered by the sense of financial security being snatched away from him. The narrator informs us readers that unlike the popular belief that education abroad is a sign of privilege, Ananda “didn’t feel prosperous” (Chaudhuri). The definition of privilege shifts suddenly as now the privileged were the local students who paid nothing while Ananda’s “father was going bankrupt paying for his…tuition fees” (Chaudhuri). Ananda’s identity of a privileged young man, engineered by the society and carefully acquired by him, thus receives an initial but sharp blow leading to further and deeper cracks.

Class
Chaudhuri startles readers with the realisation that quotidian phrases that we use each day to introduce ourselves or even describe our habits satiates our need to be superior and apart from those around us. Ananda soon realises that his identity, that of a “modern Bengali…with a cursory but proud knowledge of Bengali Literature” (Chaudhuri), the ability to speak and write in English and even eating lettuce sandwiches for tea, no longer made him a distinguished individual in England. While not a traditional hierarchical representation of class, Ananda’s disposition shows the existence of class identity based on social differences.

Collective Identity
Chaudhuri’s introduction to the massive contribution that the colonisation of India made towards the construction of the class identity of a colonised Indian is subtle. However, his core intention seems to be to explore man’s deep desire to be recognised. The idea of simply having a collective identity is disorienting for Ananda just as it is for international students at a foreign university, who all of sudden find their needs, their anxieties and beliefs being addressed from the point of view of their race. They start getting identified on the basis of “non-class based hierarchies of sex, race or ethnicity” (qtd in Kandal 140), for instance as South Asians or Desis or Brown, rather than being addressed as individuals with particular needs.

Literary Identity
Thus, we see that Ananda’s need to be an intellectual himself and his desire to see the intellectual in others jars against the needs of the greater community of South Asians in the book who seem to be unconcernedly living their lives. Ananda is disappointed by the “newfangled but unintellectual” (Chaudhuri) around him, which interestingly could be a reflection of the influence of Romanticism on him.

Chaudhuri has repeatedly used the motif of the window that separates Ananda in his studio flat from the world outside while also being an opening to it, as a way to communicate Ananda’s focus on interiority.

Like the Romantic poets he reads and reveres, he is concerned with his internal feelings, which counter intuitively prevents him from having a deep immersive experience of the world around him.

On the other hand, Ananda’s uncle, who has grown up in the tradition and with the Literature of Tagore, has a more humanist approach to the world. Where Ananda is ensconced within himself, his uncle tries to be the generous provider for his extended family. Unbeknownst to themselves, Ananda and his Uncle have embraced the identities of their beloved authors. Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad tactfully shows readers that, rather than creating openness to ideas, our assumed identities, like Ananda and his uncle, may make us capable of understanding how the identity of the other is manufactured, while also making us dismissive of it.

Thanks for reading and have a great day!

In retrospection,
Trishna

Works Cited
-Chaudhuri, Amit. Odysseus Abroad. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
-Kandal, Terry R. “Gender, Race & Ethnicity: Let’s Not Forget Class.” Jean Ait Belkhir, Race, Gender & Class Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, 1995, pp. 139-162. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41675384.

Odysseus Abroad

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